The Soul Of Cinematic Wit

Lisa, benj clews, and me at P.J. Clarke's at Lincoln Center, Aug. 18, 2007.

Lisa, benj clews, and me at P.J. Clarke’s at Lincoln Center, Aug. 18, 2007.

Earlier this morning, I had my daily “brain-lighting” session on one of my favorite Web sites, the Four Word Film Review. It’s now closing in on its tenth anniversary, a lifetime in Web years, and I’ve been an active user for more than five. The title pretty much gives you the story: anyone is welcome to add film reviews limited only by the unbreakable condition that they be four words or fewer. Actually, it’s kinda cheeky to call them “reviews,” since most are just extremely cogent comments (“Icy dead people” for TITANIC, “The Great S Cape” for SUPERMAN), or oddball points of view (“I bet Kramer wins” for KRAMER VS. KRAMER, “Gory, gory, hallelujah!” for THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST). So since they aren’t really proper reviews, many of the site’s users don’t call themselves reviewers at all, but “fwiffers.”

I used the words “cheeky” and “proper” to show respect for the site’s brilliant creator, benj clews (he prefers the lower case). He’s a Brit and the site runs on GMT, but there are fwiffers in damn near every time zone in the world. benj started with a beautiful idea – I don’t know what it is about four words that makes the limit perfect, but five are too many and three not enough – and he kept adding features. You can vote for the reviews you particularly like, only one vote per review, so some people have taken to amassing votes. Others have linked films together in groups called “accolades,” such as every John Wayne flick, and some people enjoy collecting those. As the site became ever more popular, benj, who had been the sole judge, enlisted a team of anonymous volunteer editors to help with the submissions flow, and now their decisions are fairly prompt. (You can complain once if your submission has been “declined” – what a lovely British way to put it – and petition for reconsideration.)

The other thing which makes FWFR “sticky” is that it creates a natural, organic community of people who love both wordplay and movies. As a tad of investigation will show you, most message boards open to the public are fairly horrific collections of catcalls and rubbish, but fwiffers tend, for the most part, to be unusually civil with one another, even when they disagree. (Except in extremely rare instances, the most agita on fwiffer boards is expressed by a few users who are perennially unhappy with the editors’ decisions; the rest is jokes and movies.) Some members are film critics themselves, and you can get a good look at a new release by watching fwiffers dissect it in four words, and in longer sentences on the film-discussion message boards. One very good writer recently decided to go through one of those cheapo 50-movie DVD sets of public-domain horror films, one by one, and write at length about each. I enjoyed reading the resulting reviews every bit as much as I do Roger Ebert’s.

Users come and go. Two of the best who have strayed away are “noncentz,” who works in TV production in Hollywood and is perhaps the most gifted punster who ever fwiffed (he wrote the second and fourth of the reviews above), and “AussieCanuck,” an actor and writer who is finishing his dissertation on Shakespeare in Canada. I’ve met both benj and AC twice. Many other fwiffers have gotten together at various “confourences,” usually held in saloons for some undetermined reason. In my experience, the four conversations have been about nearly everything but FWFR. You just form an instant relationship when you meet someone who shares something important, and you assume that base and take it from there.

Those who are forced to leave by the vicissitudes of life are usually replaced by others who note the fairly regular mention of FWFR in the mainstream press. benj does radio interviews by phone whenever some anchorman hears about us. Once we were one of the “Ten Things We Love” in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. Another time, Roger Ebert’s website gave us a nod. Not long ago, there was a FWFR quiz in something called Sporcle, and I’ve been seeing some new names among the approved reviews; it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it. Once a crossword-puzzle constructor used some of our reviews as the theme of his puzzle; when called out about it, he claimed to have gotten our funny business in “an email from a friend.” (We gave him a collective hmmmm, and there are still varying opinions over whether it was actually he or “his friend” who glommed fwiffs from our site. As an avid NYT crossworder, I can assure you that most solvers assumed he had come up with these great puns himself, as he undoubtedly knew they would. He could have simply added a clue, “Source of all the movie puns in this puzzle,” and become our hero. He didn’t. Thus the skeptical hmmmm.) When it went to a new format recently, NEWSWEEK started a sidebar called IN SIX WORDS, “Inspired by Smith Magazine’s Six-Word Memoir Project.” Dudes, we were fwiffing long before that.

I suppose I should warn you that not all the material on this site is rated PG. The quality of the reviews ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous; bathroom and locker-room humor is in ample evidence alongside the Dorothy Parker stuff, as well as jokes that could possibly offend a member of any race, creed, or sexual orientation (for these distinctions and more are all represented among actual fwiffers). They don’t seem to get us mad, and the best ones can make us laugh no matter where the barb is aimed – for it’s usually at nothing more serious than the movie itself, especially in the case of bad movies which think they aren’t. You can tell one when you observe that, instead of paying attention, you’re sitting there thinking of four-word reviews instead.

You know you’re hooked when the server goes down and you start e-mailing each other in panic. benj, who took a trip around the world with Lisa for their honeymoon a couple years ago and still kept the damn thing going, was plagued by server problems earlier this year, and finally switched providers in disgust. Things are humming once again, and the natives are getting their rest. We just can’t do without our dose of fwiffing — even if, and we clamorers must not forget, benj created and runs this mutha for exactly $00.00 in remuneration. In fact, it’s a net negative, since he pays for the bandwidth, and there are no membership fees! FWFR exists solely because its creator thinks it should. So kindly shove your cover stories about Facebook and Twitter: here’s a bottom-up Web creation that influenced even NEWSWEEK — and it’s far more Woodstockian, dear MSM! Cheers, benj — both kudos and a pint — for ten great years, and here’s to many, many more:

Four words? Our love.

P.S.: And now it’s even a book!


9 Responses to The Soul Of Cinematic Wit

  1. noncentz says:

    Wonderful blog! I was alerted through that other lapsed fwiffer, AussieCanuck. I’e only stayed away because sometimes that’s the only way to cure an addiction. I left on a happy note and FWFR still holds happy memories of brain-twisting cinephilia. Thanks for the mention!

  2. noncentz says:

    And…it’s nice to know I haven’t been forgotten.

  3. ChocolateLady Davida says:

    Wow! You write long articles just as well as you write four word reviews. Lovely!

  4. BaftaBabe says:

    Cogent, informative, a delight to read. You’re a blogging hero! 🙂

  5. clay says:

    Your blog is a good example of how fwiffing trains the fwiffer to make every word count. It’s energizing, reading such nutritionally dense prose! Thanks for the energy!

  6. Sean says:

    I blame benj for the fact that confourences are in saloons! But, realistically speaking, where else would you have one? 😛

    Great review, it would make me want to become a fwiffer if I wasn’t already!

  7. Guy says:

    I’ve lapsed a bit in my FWFR’ing. I’ve been really busy lately, but now I’m unemployed, so maybe I’ll have more time for it.

  8. Tom Dupree says:

    Must point out that since I wrote this piece, I also met the very talented “clay,” a *really good* multidisciplinary artist. So that’s three. My pals in England have topped me by far. I enjoy seeing pix from every confourence, and one day I’m going to surprise them all by saying, “I’m here in Blighty, you film-loving reprobates! Executive-produce the bloody ale!”

  9. Tom Dupree says:

    And, tonight, I met “demonic,” who is a member of the Shakespeare’s Globe company that’s performing RICHARD III and TWELFTH NIGHT in rep on Broadway. Linda and I enjoyed a pre-show nosh with demonic, saw the spectacular latter show from a box seat that he provided at a WICKED discount, and had a quick backstage tour of the historic Belasco Theatre afterward. Kids, keep making fun of movies: you never know…

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